Dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres — In Color!

I’ll start with Pluto, because this is very exciting to me.  😉  New Horizons has been steadily approaching distant Pluto, and now it has returned its first color image of Pluto and Charon.  New Horizons is unusual in that it carries a bona-fide color camera; other spacecraft usually carry black-and-white cameras with color wheels instead.  The Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera in the Ralph instrument suite doesn’t have as great a resolution as the monochromatic LORRI camera, which has a telescope attached to it, but it natively produces color images.  This is vital due to how extremely fast the Pluto encounter will be; taking multiple images through different filters will not be possible on encounter day.  So you may find the fuzziness of this picture a bit disappointing, as it doesn’t yield any better detail than the last LORRI image released, even though they’re much closer now.  But it’s a preliminary release; the team is going to clean it up and rerelease it after a while, and of course we’ll get much better pictures as Pluto gets closer.

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And then, while we wait for the first orbital images of Ceres to be released, we can enjoy this false-color global map, produced during the approach phase in a combination of visible and infrared light.  It’s got some surprises in it.  For one thing, Ceres’ surface is highly varied in composition.  For another, it’s not as extensively craterered as other asteroids, suggesting a younger surface.  Lastly, those weird lights don’t look the same in non-visible light; some are warmer than the background, some are colder, and in infrared, some vanish altogether.  Dawn mission scientists at present have no explanation, and are keenly awaiting more data as Dawn slowly works it way down into the desired orbit for science operations to begin.

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And then there’s this sequence, comparing visible and infrared images taken with LORRI (left) and the Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (center, visible, and right, infrared).  The top row shows a bright spot designated Region 1 and the bottom row shows the really bright double spot designated Region 5.  Region 1 appears to be much cooler than its surroundings, while Region 5 must be the same temperature since it completely vanishes.  This, of course, only makes it more interesting.  😉

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